Rethinking energy’s impact on society in Bangladesh and beyond

On the 4th of April 2016, Bangladeshi police opened fire on protesters, killing four people, including a 37-year-old salt cultivator, from the remote village of Gandamara in the district of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Around another 100 villagers were also injured by the approximately 700 rounds fired by the police. They had joined 500 other villagers demonstrating against the planned construction of a large (1320 MW) Chinese financed coal-fired power plant to be built at Banshkhali on coastal farming land.

People speaking at protests a month later in May said that the police were still threatening and harassing Banshkhali people with arrests and detention, with people were now unable to leave their village out of fear. The loss of life doesn’t yet seem to have affected the Government’s efforts to continue supporting the construction of the plant.

These protests are not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Three people were shot dead by paramilitary forces when 5000 people congregated to protest against an open-pit coal mine in the district of Phulbari in the north of Bangladesh in 2006, a decade before the 2016 demonstration. Now a globally renowned people’s movement, the incident resulted in a ban on mining in Phulbari, but the struggle has not ended. GCM Resources (formerly Asia Energy Corporation), a London-based company, which is invested in the mining operations, has continued to pile up pressure on the Bangladesh Government, which is now reviewing the plans. A GCM Resources statement says it’s awaiting government approval to begin mining in Phulbari.

Protestors standing with a banner saying no open-pit mining in Bangladesh.

Protestors outside the AGM of GCM Resources in 2012. The company is awaiting Bangladeshi government approval to develop an open-pit coal mine in the district of Phulbari, Bangladesh. Credit: Global Justice Now (CC BY 2.0).

The political economy of fossil fuels is complex and contested in Bangladesh. This small nation off the coast of the Bay of Bengal is witnessing a remarkable growth in small-scale solar energy systems, but this is still a minor player. The energy mix is dominated by natural gas, with coal currently contributing only 2% of the country’s generation capacity. However, as natural gas supplies dwindle, the Government is making plans to set up 24 coal plants with a cumulative capacity of 24 GW. If the plans succeed, this would increase the share of coal in the country’s current electricity mix to 40% by 2021. This represents a paradigm shift in energy infrastructure.

The developments pose a genuine risk to the environment, to many people’s livelihoods and the democratic functioning of Bangladesh. For example, as set out in my paper for Energy Research and Social Science, the Banshkhali power plant did not have an Environmental Impact Assessment carried out before the developers began the process of land acquisition. The site for the Rampal power plant in Khulna district, which is located a mere 14 kms away from the Sunderbans, violates another basic environmental norm, which stipulates the importance of creating a 25 km buffer zone around a coal plant.

As a student of energy policy at the University of Sussex Science  Policy Research Unit, I have been introduced to a variety of approaches to understanding energy and its governance. Cost benefit analysis of different energy sources, technological innovation, tackling energy access and energy transition theories, the subject of energy and its governing policies is vast and fascinating. But what tends to get hidden under a heap of technical jargon is the social impact of energy and its myriad manifestations. A recent study of contemporary research in energy substantiates this claim by revealing that the social science of energy is a poorly explored subject. Less than 5% of citations across 4,444 research articles on energy between 1999 and 2013 referred to social science or humanities journals.

We need to become better at exploring energy’s impact on society. The shootings in Bangladesh demand a moment of reflection on the paths to energy development that countries like Bangladesh espouse. It also demands of policy makers and us academicians an urgency to review our approach to energy, which can often ignore the very people that we claim to help.

by Chaitanya Kumar Kotikalapudi, is carrying out research for an MSc in Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. 

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